Episode 18: Helping Our Children Embrace the Uniqueness of Others

In this episode we look at some great books about individuals who made a difference in the world while living with special needs, how we can overcome our own challenges, and how we can appreciate the uniqueness of each person.

Books Discussed in This Episode

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Welcome to “Books that Spark,” a podcast for parents and caregivers, celebrating books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion, leading to teachable moments with our kids.

Today, I’m going to be talking about sign language, being deaf, and some wonderful books that have to do with this subject. For some reason, this has just been on my heart to talk about. I think my heart and my mind have been thinking a lot about ministry and what we can do with our kids in ministry and how we can help them to have a heart for ministering to others. And I’ve always loved sign language. My great grandparents were deaf. I did not know them, but because of that, my family has always known a little bit of sign language. So, I’ve always wanted to learn more, and I’ve taken some sign language classes and have done a little bit of signing in ministry, but I have loved every minute of it. It has been such a blessing to try to communicate and to try to be a catalyst to help bridge the communication gap. Whether I’m dealing with second language learners or someone who is deaf, I like being that bridge to bridge the gap in communication and getting the word of God into the hands of whomever God brings into my life. This is something that I’ve just always loved. And I think the language is so beautiful and visual. I love learning that. And, of course, we have found with autism and even with very young children, teaching them sign enables them to communicate easier and earlier in life.

So, let’s talk a little bit about some really wonderful books. And one is an older book, but it’s called I Have a Sister. My Sister Is Deaf, and it’s by Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray. And it’s this sister telling about her little sister who is deaf and what her daily experiences are like. But what I love about it is not only does it help a child to understand what it might be like to be deaf and then how to be able to respect and help someone or be sensitive to someone, but to understand what they’re going through and what their experience is, which is always a good thing to help our children learn empathy. But it’s so beautiful the way she discusses life with her sister. You can sense the love she has for her sister and the joy that she has and happiness that she has in living life with her little sister. For instance, on one of the pages they’re sitting at the piano and she says, “My sister can play the piano. She likes to feel the deep rumbling chords, but she will never be able to sing. She cannot hear the tune.” I think it just really opens our eyes to what it would be like to not be able to hear. In one picture on one page, she’s talking about how she covers her ears and tries to experience what her sister might experience. And this page, I just love. She said, “I understand my sister. My sister understands what I say too. Especially if I speak slowly and move my hands a lot, but it is not only my lips and fingers that my sister watches. I wore my sunglasses yesterday. The frames are very large. The lenses are very black. My sister made me take them off when I spoke. What do my brown eyes say to her brown eyes? That I would really rather play ball than play house? That I just heard our mother call, but I do not want to go in yet?” And so it points out that not only does a deaf person look at our gestures and read our lips or sign language, they look at our expressions and our eyes and they take it all in to communicate.

I used to have a deaf friend and if the phone rang, of course, she couldn’t hear it. So it would ring. And, all of a sudden, we all just looked over at the phone, and she’s like, “Whoa, what’s going on.” Instead of the conversation being centered around where we were talking with her, everybody naturally just looked toward the phone, and she figured out, “Oh, the phone must be ringing.” It’s kind of cool how this book breaks that down and clarifies that for a young reader. So that one is called. I Have a Sister. My Sister Is Deaf.

Another book I really love is by Alan Say. It’s called Silent Days, Silent Dreams, and it’s the story about an artist named James Castle who was born deaf, nearly blind and also had autism and possibly dyslexia. His story is fascinating. Because he was born in 1899, he didn’t have a lot of help, and he taught himself to draw. Most of his life, he was just ridiculed and abused by the children around him and even some of his family members. But eventually, his genius was understood. I love his story so much because it shows the determination of a person who has that gift of art. And they cannot walk away from it, no matter how many people try to keep them from doing it. It shows the determination of someone with disabilities who’s trying to reach the outside world and to make his own world in his case, as kind of a reaction to the world around him. We’ll never know exactly how he experienced what he went through because he could not speak, but the genius of his work was obvious. And, fortunately, it was realized before he died. And that was acknowledged, I don’t know how much he understood of what was acknowledged, but they think that he lived out his last 12 years or so just happy as could be with being able to produce art and everything. But the story is so interesting. I think it would be a wonderful story to add to your collection, especially if you’re reading stories about people with disabilities or challenges in their lives. He definitely had more than the average person. And one of the things that I would do if I were reading this book with homeschoolers or with students at school, is–it talks about how, because they took his pencils away; they took ink away from him, and everything else, he had to be creative in being able to draw. And so, he used matches that had been lit and burned out. And he would write with that. He took soot from the chimney, from the fireplace, and then he would add saliva to it and use a stick to draw and to make his pictures. And Alan Say tried all these different methods, so he could see what it was like to draw like James. And he said it was very interesting because if you just use the soot or the matches, the picture won’t stay. It’ll just smudge away because it isn’t fixed. And they didn’t have, he, of course, especially did not have something to make the picture adhere to the paper. But in his process of doing this, he learned that saliva makes that stick to the paper and makes the pictures last. And so that was kind of cool. And he found that out trying to imitate James Castle. But this is a beautiful book. It’s illustrated amazingly. Of course, all of Alan Say’s books are gorgeous, but it’s just a wonderful book. And I think the first book I Have a Sister, My Sister Is Deaf, I would say that that would be geared more towards your three to five to seven-year-olds. And then the Allen Say book would be for your little bit older student, but it would still be interesting, I think, even to about a six-year-old or seven-year-old, especially if they’re interested in art. But then as I was saying, if I were using this in homeschool or in my classroom, I would give the children an assignment to draw a picture using something unusual. And you might have to specify what is not allowed because some kids would try some really awful things possibly, but give them some ideas and give them some choices. Maybe have them clear their choice with you before they start rummaging through cabinets or whatever or going out in the yard and finding something. But to give children an opportunity to be creative; what would they do if they didn’t have a pencil? What would they do if they had to draw a picture, and they didn’t have the tools that we normally use to do art? And then the other thing that Castle did was he would cut out used scraps from trash, and he would make little people and little animals, like little puppets, kind of, that they called his friends. He would line up on the wall little animals and things like that. And so it would be fun to use some paper and cardboard and things left in the trash and recycle those to make some little creatures, some little animal puppets or whatever that you could display in your house or in your classroom and let the children be creative that way. It would be a lot of fun to study this, to talk about autism, to talk about deafness, blindness, dyslexia, all of these challenges that he had being mute, where he couldn’t ever speak–all of these things and carry that over, extended into a really interesting art lesson. And also you could talk very much about determination and how hard do we try to keep doing what we feel like we’re supposed to do, that burning in our heart, that we know God is calling us or has gifted us to do. How hard are we going to push to make that happen when we run into difficulties? We can talk about a lot of good character lessons with this book. So those two books I think are wonderful. And like I said, this one is called Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Alan Say.

Two more people that I think it would be great to get their stories–there’s a baseball player who was born deaf, and he had a great impact on the game. His name was William Hoy. The book is The William Hoy’s Story by Nancy Churnin and pictures by Jez Tuya. This is another book that would be good. And this is not a chapter book; it’s for your early elementary. It’s not a picture book, it’s an actual storybook. So, it has more words, but it’s not a chapter book. And then for a little bit older student, of course, they have to read about Helen Keller. Her life story is so interesting. And there are some books out there that are really nicely done about her life. For children, one of them is The Story of Helen Keller: A Biography Book for New Readers. And it’s a chapter book, an early chapter book, so they’re not hugely long chapters. This one’s by Christine Platt and illustrated by Ana Sanfelippo. It’s a nice book, but if your children are old enough, I recommend actually reading The Story of My Life by Helen Keller. I’ve only read excerpts from it, but everything I’ve read from that book is so beautifully written. Helen Keller had a really strong gift for imagery and for writing just eloquently. What I love though, if you’re teaching a lesson on figurative language or literary devices, and you’re talking about imagery, her story is one of the best, ironically. I mean, here she is deaf and blind, and yet her imagery in her story is some of the best I’ve ever read. And so, it’s a wonderful story to use for teaching imagery to your older students. Now, this is definitely a chapter book written for older kids to adult age. So, I wouldn’t assign it to your elementary kids. It wouldn’t hurt with your middle schoolers to show imagery using this book. And I think it would be okay for a middle schooler to read this as well. And there’s one more about Helen Keller that you may want to look at as well. And it is similar to the first one I mentioned. It’s called, Who Was Helen Keller by Gary Thompson and illustrated by Nancy Harrison. And this one is a little bit earlier. It has bigger words. Size-Wise bigger words and is geared more towards your first, second grader who’s just starting to read chapter books. So that would be a good choice. And then the other one that I mentioned that is a chapter book is still an early chapter book, but it would, you know, it’s got more words and smaller words on the pages. So it’s for a little bit older student. So those are some ideas of biographies you could read about different people who are deaf.

There are three books that I recommend for children for learning sign language. One of them is called Time to Sign: Sign Language for Kids by Catherine Clay and illustrated by Michael Reed and Margo Lucas. This one is for your second, third grader age range, somewhere in there. It has photographs and pictures of how to do the sign language. It has some pointers in the beginning about how to introduce sign language to your children and to autistic children or whomever. It’s really nicely done. And then for your really young children who just want to learn a few words, or if you want to teach them finger spelling: My First Book of Sign Language is a good one. It’s been out for a while. It’s been out since 2004 by Joan Holub she’s the author and illustrator, and it’s just a really cute Scholastic book. And so it’s nice for introducing sign language and finger spelling.

But my absolute favorite book that I would highly recommend for teaching sign language to children is American Sign Language for Kids: 101 Easy Signs for Nonverbal Communication by Rachelle Barlow. Her story is very interesting. She first learned sign language, not because she had a deaf friend or a deaf family member, but because of the gorilla that learned to sign, and she was fascinated with monkeys and gorillas. And so that was her first interest in sign language. In the book, she took the time to research about ASL–the community, the autistic community, and how you can use sign in both of those settings. She gives pointers that are very easily explained to children. They’re written out very clearly of how you act when you’re talking to a deaf person, how you should keep eye contact and speak to the deaf person. Even if a translator or interpreter is signing to the person, you still look at the deaf person because that’s who you’re speaking to. She talks about how you don’t talk to your friend who’s a hearing person without signing what you are saying in your conversation because it’s rude to exclude the deaf person that way. And it’d be like someone whispering in front of us and not letting us know what they’re saying. And so, it goes through a lot of the etiquette and how to teach a child to really be able to go into a deaf community and minister and be a part of the community and enjoy the fellowship. So, I love that about it. And then of course it has 101 sign language vocabulary to learn. It’s an excellent book. So that one I really like is American Sign Language for Kids: 101 Easy Signs for Nonverbal Communication. And this book is also fairly new. It was published in 2019.

One thing you need to be aware of, if you haven’t been in the deaf community or learned sign language, is that there are signs that are regional. So, if you learn sign language on the West Coast of America and or of the US, and you go to the East Coast, there’s going to be some signs that are very different. I found that to be the case when I first learned. I learned from an East Coast teacher and then later learned from a West Coast teacher, and having to unlearn and relearn was very hard. And then I also found that when I got around someone who was deaf, just like when I try to practice my Chinese, I get very nervous. And so, we need to practice a lot so that we can get comfortable with the language before we are thrust into a situation where we have to use it. But I will tell you as with just about any other language, if you’re trying to do your best and you really genuinely want to communicate, usually people appreciate your efforts and are very kind about it. We do need to be careful that we know the etiquette and understand the culture of the deaf community, because it is different. I’m very well-known for whatever language I’m learning, embarrassing myself in speaking that language. So, you know, I’ve learned a little Korean sign language. I wanted to learn Chinese sign language, but Oh my goodness, that’s harder than learning to speak Chinese. It is so difficult. And so I wasn’t able to learn that even though I wanted to, but it is so much fun. And I’m hoping that maybe if you decide to learn sign language with your child, that God might open up a door for ministry, and that you can make connections with the deaf people in your community.

If you are interested in doing ministry in reaching out or starting Bible studies that can minister to the autistic community, the deaf community, or any other group of people who have challenges or limitations, the Disability Ministry Conference of Northern California is a new organization. Last year, they had their very first conference. And, of course, this year, we couldn’t have it because of COVID, but they have plans to continue on and to do more in the future (https://www.disabilityministryconference.com/socal-conference#eb-plugin-page-1). But a friend of mine who is involved with that is Diane Kim. And she’s written a devotional book for parents of autistic children called Unbroken Faith: Spiritual Recovery for the Special Needs Parent. And her son is autistic, and their church has a wonderful disabilities ministry. And she’s also a disability ministry consultant. I’ll have a link to her website in the show notes because I think if you’re wanting to start a ministry like that, she’s a perfect person to contact about doing that. And there’s a book. I hadn’t intended to talk about this, but since we’re on the topic, I’m going to go ahead and recommend one more book for you if you’re wanting to do this kind of the ministry, and that is Amy Fenton Lee’s book, Leading a Special Needs Ministry: A Practical Guide to Including Children and Loving Families. If we aren’t trying to equip our churches to at least reach out somewhat to these families, we need to have a church place that is safe, where they can bring their children and be a part of something that God is doing in their community and be welcomed into the church. And for a lot of these parents too, if they don’t have respite care, it can be overwhelming. Especially if a child could hurt themselves. We can offer a place of refuge for them. We can offer a place of safety and acceptance and love and allow that parent to go into a worship service and have that hour where they can focus on God and they can focus on something besides parenting, because it can be a 24-7 job with no break with some of the disabilities that children have to deal with. You know, it’s a constant battle and they’re exhausted and we can be that place that can minister to them. And we can teach our kids to care and to encourage and to be there for people who are different from them. So I think that’s a wonderful thing as we’re discipling our children, to help them see us minister to those who have been marginalized, not because society hates them, but because society isn’t always equipped to meet their needs. And I know that more and more, we try to do that. So, the church needs to consciously choose to do that. We need to consciously choose to do that whenever that opportunity arises. And if you’re teaching a unit on disabilities, one of the best books I’ve seen on the topic is by Joni and Friends and illustrated by Trish Mahoney. And the forward is by Johnny Erickson, Tada. And it’s called God Made Me Unique: Helping Children See Value in Every Person. And this one is listed on my list of 100 books to (more than 100 books) to help start your child’s library that you get when you sign up for my mailing list. So, you may have seen it on that list, but this is a wonderful book about how we’re all unique. And we all have challenges and we’re all uniquely made and blessed by God. And He wants to use our lives. It’s beautiful and very encouraging.

I don’t know what God has planned. I just know that this was on my heart to share this week. And so, I’m trying to be obedient to that. I pray that God will open doors. I pray that God will use our fascination with whatever language or whatever ministry He puts on our hearts to reach out and to try to help others. Thank you for joining us for Books that Spark, a podcast celebrating books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussions. I hope our discussion will spark meaningful conversations with the children in your life.

Your Host

Terrie Hellard-Brown writes and speaks to help children and adults find God’s purpose and plan for their lives. She teaches workshops and writes devotional books, children’s stories, and Christian education materials.

Her podcast, Books that Spark, reviews children’s books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion leading to teachable moments with our kids. Her podcast posts each Tuesday morning.

Her blog posts are published each Thursday and discuss living as a disciple of Christ while discipling our children. She challenges us to step out of our comfort zones to walk by faith in obedience to Christ.

For more information, visit her website at terriehellardbrown.com

Terrie uses her experiences as a mother of four (three on “the spectrum”), 37 years in ministry (15 in Taiwan), and 32 years teaching to speak to the hearts of readers.

Her motto is “Growing older is inevitable; growing up is optional” and keeps her childlike joy by writing children’s stories, delighting over pink dolphins, and frequently laughing till it hurts.

Disclaimer: Although Terrie majored in psychology and sociology for her bachelor’s degree and has taught AP Psychology, she is NOT a licensed therapist. She sometimes mentions items in her blog and podcast that could be considered comments on psychology, but these comments are based on ministry experience and ministering to people through the missions and church work she’s done for the past 36 years. If you have questions about psychological disorders or counseling needs, please consider finding a reputable, licensed counselor in your area. Terrie’s comments should be seen as anecdotal and ministry-experience-related or scripture-based. Thank you!

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